Mongo Beti Thomas Cassirer - Essay

Thomas Cassirer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All three [of Mongo Beti's novels, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba, Mission terminée, and Le Roi miraculé,] comment, in a mixture of light-hearted farce and bitter satire, on the problems encountered in the quest for an "intellectual direction," and present us with a critical portrayal of the man of ideas, the potential guide of the disoriented African.

Mongo Beti has not been generally considered in this light. Critics have usually spoken of him as one of Africa's foremost authors, "a formidable satirist and one of the most percipient critics of European colonialism," or, like Wole Soyinka and Robert Pageard, they have stressed his realistic portrayal of African life and praised his work…. In a sense Mongo Beti himself is responsible for this one-sided appreciation of his work, for he has chosen to set his portrayal of the man of ideas in the incongruous locale of the bush village, rather than in the modern city that might have seemed more appropriate. Yet this incongruity is not introduced merely as an effective comic device. It also serves to present the universal problem of disorientation in specifically African terms.

Mongo Beti's African village is situated at the meeting point between traditional communal life and a new awareness of imminent change. Within this context he raises the problem of "intellectual direction" by introducing into the village protagonists who are bearers of Western ideas as well as actual or potential guides for the villagers in their prospective odyssey into the modern world. The novels form a loose trilogy that describes the encounter between the village and the protagonists during the last three decades of European colonial rule: Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba takes place in the late nineteen thirties, at a time when European colonialism is still in complete control of Africa. Le Roi miraculé is set in the late nineteen forties and touches on the liberalization of the colonial regime brought about by the war. In Mission terminée, set in the nineteen fifties, the colonial authorities no longer appear and the action takes place in an entirely African community.

This time-span of some twenty years brings only one essential change to the village. The two novels set in the post-war world highlight a situation of conflict between the generations that is not mentioned in the pre-war world of Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba. Apart from this development,… there is little to distinguish the earthy peasant society of one novel from that of another. It is an essentially pagan society, but pagan in the popular sense of the word, with none of the animist religious tradition that we find in Camara Laye's Kouroussa or Achebe's Umuofia. Mongo Beti's peasants are fun-loving materialists, possessed of an earthy good sense and considerable physical vitality. They live in what is still a stable, at times even stagnant, village society that is tightly ruled by the conventions of African social tradition.

Into this stable peasant world Mongo Beti introduces two types of protagonists: European missionaries and African students. Both of these, as one would expect, bring with them Western ideas, but in the context of Mongo Beti's conception of a materialist and socially conservative African society they also represent a new kind of man whose life is guided by ideas and learning, and not solely by convention or self-interest. These two protagonists follow each other in the chronological sequence of the novel trilogy's epic time. The first novel is dominated by the figure of the "Christ" of the mission of Bomba, the Reverend Father Drumont. In the novel set in the late nineteen forties, Le Roi miraculé, Father Drumont's former assistant, Father Le Guen, shares the spotlight with two African students, Kris and Bitama. In Mission terminée an African student, Jean Medza, is the sole protagonist.

The missionaries are fully rounded figures whose characterization is drawn with a mixture of empathy and critical verve. Mongo Beti avoids the facile anticlericalism that turns the missionary figures of his fellow Camerounian Ferdinand Oyono into caricatures of the most unchristian type of priest, selfish, materialist, and scornful of the black man. Mongo Beti's missionaries have come to Africa inspired by what one might call a "primitivist" Christian faith, a belief in the childlike virtues of the African which should allow him to enter the Kingdom of Heaven far more easily than the white man once he has accepted the Christian message. The missionaries are the only figures in the novels whose life is guided by single-minded devotion to a faith, and they are also the only ones who explicitly believe in a universal humanity that transcends barriers of race and culture…. Yet the missionaries' faith in universal humanity remains purely abstract because their primitivist view of the African leads them to treat him as a pure child of nature with no cultural identity of his own. They cannot even conceive of adapting Christianity to African customs, an inflexibility that seems particularly striking in the representatives of a Church that has always been known for its ability to incorporate indigenous pre-Christian beliefs and practices into its structure.

It comes then as no surprise that the Africans in Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba repeatedly explain the missionary's failure with the statement that "Christ was not a Black man." From the time of the novel's publication, when it provoked considerable protest in Catholic and colonial circles, this has also generally been considered to be the essence of Mongo Beti's thesis. Yet the missionaries in his novels are too complex to be merely typed as the butt of an anticolonialist and anti-Christian satire. The predicament of Father Drumont in particular does not result merely from his disregard of the vitality of African customs. He finds himself defeated as well by the pervasive influence of Western materialist civilization even in the African bush. It was his opposition to this materialism that originally brought him to Africa filled with the hope of converting the natives to the Christian faith and thus protecting them from the forces which had corrupted the Europeans. He discovers, however, that his apparent success during the early years of his...

(The entire section is 2596 words.)